Summary from Goodreads
Where Emmeline lives, you cannot love and you cannot leave…
The Council’s rules are strict, but they’re for the good of the settlement in which Emmeline lives. Everyone knows there is nothing but danger the other side of the Wall, and the community must prepare for the freezing winterkill that comes every year.
But Emmeline struggles to be obedient under the Council’s suffocating embrace – especially when she discovers that a Council leader intends to snatch her hand in marriage.
Then Emmeline begins to hear the call of the trees beyond the Wall..
As a child growing up in the west of Canada, my history texts were full of tales of self-reliance and resourcefulness. I learned about the settlement of the land I called home; of the courage of the first settlers. Clearing acres of forest for farmland, by hand, is no easy task. Leaving families and comforts to travel into the unknown is not for the faint of heart. Independence and inventiveness was, and continues to be, a large part of our cultural narrative.
A cultural narrative can be defined as a story a particular group tells itself, about itself. A people’s values, traditions, and history are encompassed in that discourse: “we are this; not that”, “we believe this; not that” “we accomplished this, we failed at that.” It’s easy to see how narratives shape our perspective not just of ourselves, but of other cultures. But are they absolute truths? Do they tell the whole story?
The triumphant settlement of the west I describe above is a cultural narrative that describes a hardy, hard-working people. But fortitude and perseverance, curiosity and bravery—this is one part of the story.
What this particular narrative omits is the perspective of the indigenous people: those who were already here. It tends to gloss over the historical reality that settlers relied on those people, on their ways of knowing and being with the land, in order to survive. It also omits the history of systematic eradication of indigenous people and their cultures through colonial expansion.
When I began writing WINTERKILL, that prevailing narrative was foremost on my mind. I wondered: what if that history was upended? What would the people’s cultural narrative look like then?
Enter my reimagined frontier. In my fantasy world, western expansion has been an utter disaster. My settlers do not have the benefit of any indigenous teachings, and they are struggling to survive in an unfamiliar, abandoned land. There is also an additional, deadly threat they don’t fully understand.
There are truths to which most everyone subscribes. Everyone knows the woods are dangerous; everyone knows exploring them puts the settlement at risk. Order in the settlement relies upon the enforcement of three virtues: Honesty, Bravery and Discovery. Everyone aspires to prove their virtues; non-compliance can be punishable by death.
My main character, Emmeline, wrestles with her settlement’s truths. She contemplates the way the virtues are defined, wondering whether it is forgivable to fail one virtue (Honesty) to prove the other (Discovery). Emmeline wonders if there is another way to think about Discovery. She questions what she has been told about what lies beyond the borders of her settlement.
Emmeline ends up breaking many rules, and though her defiance puts her in immediate danger, it also brings about change. Her curiosity is a component of that—it aids her actions—but her reluctance to be blindly obedient, to swallow the stories she is told, is the reason true change is possible.
There are many instances of this in history. The great revolutionaries are those who dared defy the prevailing cultural narrative– fighting for freedom of religious expression, or the right to vote, or the ability to be married are but a few examples. Emmeline’s struggle is isolated and personal compared to these, but the idea of challenging the status quo remains the same.
Cultural narratives are important, no doubt. There is comfort and merit in reminding ourselves where we have come from and how we have arrived here. But I think questioning that, determining which voices and possibilities are left out of those truths, is also a responsible way of engaging with our world. It helps us understand that the stories we tell ourselves have many sides; they are as complex as the people who tell them. Sometimes, it can even help us rewrite the narrative in a way that brings about positive change.
Kate Boorman is an independent artist and writer from the Canadian prairies. She has a Master of Arts in Dramatic Critical Theory and a work resume full of an assortment of jobs, from florist to accordion accompanist to qualitative research associate. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta with her family, where she schemes up opportunities for them to travel the world. Winterkill is her first novel.